Meet Lara Tseng

Lara Tseng with fledgling Northern Mockingbird.

Lara Tseng, at 16 years old, is a junior in college through the Early Entrance Program at Cal State Los Angeles. She is majoring in biology with a concentration in ecology, evolution, and the environment, and is minoring in bioinformatics. Aiming to become an ornithologist, she is particularly interested in taxonomy and avian evolutionary research. Lara talks about her early interest in birds and her experiences in the field and offers her insights as a young female Asian birder.

When did you become passionate about birds?

I have long been interested in nature, but I started birding when I was eight years old after noticing a Mourning Dove in my neighborhood. Later on, monitoring bluebirds and doing research on their calcium consumption patterns sparked my interest in ornithology.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years? 

I hope to have completed a PhD in ornithology and be in a postdoctoral program, or beginning a job as a curator, researcher, or professor. I want to conduct research that relates to avian evolution, and to unravel complex taxonomic issues in order to better describe the diversity and vulnerability of various taxa.

What are your feelings about being a second-generation female immigrant?

First- and second-generation Asian parents often pressure their children to pursue lucrative and traditionally prestigious careers. I was lucky I didn’t experience that. When I was younger, I was interested in many subjects, including astronomy and paleontology, and now am passionate about and dedicated to the science of ornithology. My parents moved to Los Angeles when I was 14 so I could join the Early Entrance Program at California State Los Angeles. I’m a single child and am very grateful not only that my career path was supported by my loving parents, but that I got to choose my own career.

As someone who straddles two different cultures and sets of values, I think it’s important to blend your worlds together, while adopting values and beliefs that are flexible enough to suit your life. Some traditional Asian values don’t make sense, especially in light of our modern political and social landscape. Social hierarchies, which predominantly emphasize respect toward the power of men and elders, can be at times misogynistic and inhibiting. I think it’s important to value objectivity, open-mindedness, and careful evaluation. Why do you believe in something, and how well does it fit into your ideal life?

Overall, I think it’s important that cultures and religions adapt in order to keep up with modern society. Many things that were acceptable centuries or even decades ago are no longer acceptable now. I see neutrality as modern. It makes for good science, and allows us to move forward in letting go of hate, divisiveness, and intolerance. I think many people, including myself, who have already or are currently juggling separate and often opposing identities, can lead by example in making better decisions for a more inclusive world.

Lara Tseng with bluebird nest box.

Do you have favorite birding hotspots or favorite species that call to you?

I am partial to any type of shorebird, but particularly those of the genus Calidris. I think there are so many interesting taxonomic, migration, and molt questions within this genus, and there is much to be said about the beauty and diversity of shorebirds as well.

Have you experienced any magical connections in the field?

I had just moved to Los Angeles and felt disconnected with the density of the city, along with starting a new semester at Cal State LA. I got a membership to the Los Angeles County Arboretum. One day I encountered a baby bird on the ground. I looked for the nearby nest and didn’t see one. I was sure the parents were close by so I didn’t disturb the baby. Then I noticed ants surrounding it and some getting on the baby. I used water to flush them away and stomped on the rest as the baby kept very still. I hoped mom would come to the rescue after I left.

We returned two days later and I saw a fledgling flying toward me. I was worried it was going to crash into my face. Then it landed on top of my hat! I was very surprised and kept perfectly still. The young Northern Mockingbird fledging was walking on my hat. Eventually I tilted my head and put out my hand. It jumped onto my hand and I was speechless! I felt this was the baby I had helped remove the ants from. I felt chills all over my body! I spent a couple hours with the bird. I was in no hurry to leave this special moment. I also got a few photos and enjoyed the magical connection we were sharing. I was able to get a few soft pets on its back, touching as we bonded quietly. The fledgling showed me its personality the longer I interacted with it. It would jump off my hat, to my hand, and even pick on my camera lens. I enjoyed when it would jump down to the trail, grab a caterpillar, eat it, and then fly back onto me.

Two days later, my mom and I were in a different section of the park. A bird suddenly came flying toward me from a big bush and landed on my hat! I was thrilled. I knew it was my special feathered friend greeting me. I spent a couple more hours with the bird. It would land on my hand, then on my hat, and back on my hand. There were about 15 minutes of stillness, with its eyes closed. We just chilled while it rested or possibly power napped on my hat. When the bird woke up, it hopped down on my hand and continued to interact with me. While I was walking extremely slowly, it would hop down and catch bugs on the ground until I got near the entrance and departed for home. It’s magical moments like this that I will never forget and keep close to my heart.

Is there anything you would like to share being a female birder? 

I think as an Asian female birder, and as a young birder in general, getting your foot in the door when trying to take your birding to the next level or trying to approach the field of ornithology can be difficult. There’s also no one right way to become a better birder, or to become an ornithologist. That’s why I think it is so important to find mentors who can support you in different aspects of your life, including professionally, academically, and personally. Having a network of individuals to guide you and connect you with others can be an incredibly impactful experience.

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